Review of A Museum in Baghdad

Hannah Khalil’s new play A Museum in Baghad is an ambitious mix of fact, fiction, debate, and magical realism, which tells a fascinating story about individuals and the country of Iraq.

A Museum in Baghad juxtaposes the original opening of The Iraq Museum in 1926 with its reopening in 2006 after the looting during the chaos following the 2003 invasion by the USA and Britain. In 1926, Gertrude Bell is working against the clock to realise her vision of a national museum for the newly-created country of Iraq. In 2006, Professor Ghalia Hussein (based in part on Dr Lamia Al-Gailani) is working against the clock to open one room of the museum for officials to show that progress is being made in its restoration.

The whole play takes place in one room of the museum, while both sets of characters are frequently on stage together, weaving together the two time periods, as they work towards the opening reception. This is particularly effective when the two women (convincingly played by Emma Fielding and Rendah Heywood respectively), say the same thing simultaneously, separated by 80 years. (The historian in me feels it necessary to note that the museum has moved since 1926, but it is a well-executed staging device).

As the story unfolds, the central characters reveal something of their motivations and history, including Bell and Hussein, but also their assistants Salim and Layla Hassan (an excellent Houda Echouanfi), and the (female, black) American soldier detailed to the museum. In one affecting scene, she challenges the Iraqi-born univeristy-educated assistant’s complaints about the differences between their countries: “I wish I could have gone to college, but that just wasn’t an option”.

The rest are more lightly sketched, with Leonard Woolley the nearest to a villain that the play has, and closest to caricature as well, although David Birrell does a good job of bringing the part to life. The more enigmatic figure of the caretaker Abu Zaman (Rasoul Saghir) appears in both time periods, although his motivation and desire are explored to some extent.

The characters discuss colonialism, debates in archaeology, the role and purpose of museums, fatalism and hope, in ways that are convincing and informed. There is a particularly good on-going discussion on museums and national identity, and the acquisition and display of artefacts. This reflects the current discussions going on in archaeology and more widely about when and if artefacts should be returned to their country of origin, the problems with Western exploitation of countries for their cultural capital and most valuable artefacts, and the challenges of how ancient artefacts relate to modern countries.

The programme is well written, with a few short essays on these themes and on the history of Iraq and a short biography of Bell. She is not as well known as she should be, being a pioneer in a variety of fields and a leading figure in the British involvement in the Middle East. The programme essays are all worth a read, although a wider range of opinions around the contested subject of where artefacts belong and should be displayed would have enhanced it.

The central figures of Bell and Hussein raise these issues very well, with Bell (as she reminds us) having ‘created the country of Iraq and crowned its first king’, and who has no desire to return ‘home’ to Britain. Meanwhile Hussein, exiled from Iraq, struggles to reintegrate into a society that has changed, and misses Britain and her family. The use of Arabic and the highlighting of challenges around race and gender are also done in ways that don’t feel forced.

The main thread of the story is interspersed by chorus scenes telling aspects of the wider history, complete with multimedia displays. These are then subsequently referred to by the characters in ways that usually make sense in retrospect, although the repeated mime of a kidnapping could have been more tightly woven into the rest of the play.

This is a challenging play, both philosophically and artistically, with a downbeat ending (which is appropriate for the subject matter and history), but one which tells a compeling story and is well acted and staged. It is well worth watching.

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